To catch a baby broker [Transcript]
Some children offered for international adoption are exploited, even kidnapped -- forcing families into a desperate battle to save them.
By Victoria Corderi
Correspondent, NBC News
They are adorable, playful and often wistful. These are the faces of children who need love, and a new home. They are children who are being offered for international adoption.
Jennell: She looked so lost. And she had this big dress on. And I thought 'Oh, I’d love to put a smile on her face.'
This little girl, whose photo reveals a sweet child with a forlorn expression, captured the hearts of this couple from New York.
Jennell: I knew the second I saw her, that - that was our little girl.
But was she? There's so much the camera does not reveal, especially in the sometimes secretive and shadowy world of international adoption.
We'll take you into that world with a hidden camera investigation that unveils shady operators accused of emptying wallets and breaking promises. It’s a world where unsuspecting families, and innocent children, become victims.
Who are these children? Are they really available? Or are they just bait to lure dollars out of Americans who want to adopt?
Jennell: Even before I wanted biological children, I knew I wanted to adopt.
Jason: I've wanted to adopt since I was probably about six.
Jason and Jennell say their longtime desire to adopt stems from having lived in South America, where they witnessed what poverty and hopelessness can do to children.
Jason: There's hundreds of thousands of children on the streets without a home, without anyone to take care of them.
Jennell: I used to see little three, four year olds on the street, all alone.
Victoria Corderi: So it's heartbreaking when you think what you could do?
Jennell: (nods yes)
The couple had one biological child, a son, and then tried to adopt from Brazil. But after waiting for two years for a child to become available, they turned to Guatemala. This small, impoverished Central American country has become so popular for adoptions that one out of every 100 children born here is adopted by Americans.
Jennell: They said there was a possibility of it being done in four months, and that usually it was six months.
Because the adoption process in Guatemala is generally fast, the country has been called an adoption paradise.
Until recently, the system was run not by the government, but by private enterprise, for profit. And that, critics say, created a paradise for fraud.
Manuel Manrique, UNICEF: We are seeing all kinds of things happening to children, like kidnappings.
Manuel Manrique heads the Guatemala office of UNICEF - the United Nations Children’s Fund. He says while not all Guatemalan adoptions are corrupt, baby snatching, extortion and pay-offs have turned the country into a virtual baby farm.
Victoria Corderi: You're talking about hard core commerce?
Manuel Manrique, UNICEF: Right.
Victoria Corderi: Children for sale?
Manuel Manrique, UNICEF: Definitely. Commerce. Linked to illegality and criminality I would say.
Jennell: I was very worried about going through Guatemala - because I’d heard all the bad press.
Victoria Corderi: And what were your fears?
Jennell: Heard that mothers were coerced into giving up babies.
Still, Jennell and Jason say they decided to adopt from Guatemala anyway - with one precaution. Since most of the corruption they'd heard about involved babies, they intentionally asked for an older child.
Jennell: We decided not to go for a baby, to go for an older child because we hadn't heard any problems with that.
Like most people who adopt from Guatemala, the couple was working with a U.S. adoption agency. The agencies, which charge an average of $25,000 per child, hire people on the ground in Guatemala to find and take care of adoptable children, and handle all the necessary paperwork. Jason and Jennell say their agency -- Adoption Blessings of Macon, Georgia -- told them Angie, the little girl in the big white dress, was in desperate need of a home.
Jennell: They said she was 18 months old. That she had just been given up. Her mother couldn't care for her anymore.
That was November of 2006. Over the next few months, Jason and Jennell received more photos, sent gifts and, they say, became deeply attached to Angie.
Jason: At this point, she's our daughter -- to us.
Victoria Corderi: She was in the family?
But suddenly, things started to go wrong. First it was an age discrepancy -- the agency sent a birth certificate that said Angie was 2 1/2 years old, not 18 months. Then it was a shocking phone call: the agency said Angie had been taken from the foster home where she was being cared for in some kind of police raid.
Jennell: It was like a nightmare.
Jason: Police had come in, grabbed the kids and taken them away.
Making matters worse, there were few details about the raid or what happened to Angie.
Jennell: I would wake up with images of her wondering where she was.
Jason: She was waking up in cold sweats, and crying at night.
Jennell was so distraught, Jason decided to go to Guatemala to find out for himself what was going on.
Jason: There's got to be something I can do. And I can't stand being in the U.S. not doing anything.
Jason and Jennell were about to begin a painful odyssey into the dark side of Guatemalan adoption. Angie's picture would never again look the same.
Jennell: It's a little girl who's been through something no child should have to go through.
To Jason, this little girl was Angie, the two-year-old who had stolen his heart and was about to become his adopted daughter. But after flying to Guatemala in a panic last march because he was told she had disappeared in a police raid, Jason discovered everything he knew about Angie was a lie.
Jason: At that point, my heart is breaking.
It turns out there had never been a police raid. The gut-wrenching truth about what really happened to Angie was uncovered by this private investigator in Guatemala. He was hired by a woman who works in the adoption business and suspected something was wrong with Angie's case.
He says everything unraveled the day Angie recognized this little girl in the waiting room of a doctor's office.
"Miguel" (in Spanish) : When the two girls saw each other they ran towards each other, they were hugging each other and started crying.
The tearful girls said they were sisters and, they had been kidnapped from their home.
This interview, taped on the private investigator's palm pilot, shows the older girl protectively clutching her sister - the little girl Jason thought he was adopting. She explains how four months earlier a neighbor tricked them, along with a third sister, into getting into a red car.
"Miguel" (in Spanish): Once they are in the car, they don't let them out and they take them to Guatemala City and lock them up in a boarding house in zone one.
Zone one is an unsavory area of the city populated by drug dealers and prostitutes. This is the boarding house where the sisters say they were locked up. It's run by a woman who is known as Mayra, and is the suspected head of a kidnapping ring.
The girls say Mayra physically abused and starved them and threatened them with more beatings if they didn't memorize new, fictitious names.
Her name is Candida - not Angie. She had been kidnapped, not given up willingly by a mother who couldn't take care of her, and she wasn't even two years old-- she was five. It was a lot for Jason to take in.
Jason: They had threatened her. They had also hurt them into admitting their new names. It makes me furious. I can't imagine doing that to an adult, never mind doing it to a child.
According to investigators, the kidnappers purchased phony birth certificates for the sisters, then split the girls up so they could sell them for adoption. One sister is still unaccounted for. Who would do such a thing? Police say the kidnapping ring is composed of women -- many of them mothers themselves.
When Jennell first saw this photo, she thought the little girl in the white dress looked lost. Now she understands why.
Victoria Corderi: Does it change what you see in this picture?
Jennell: It's not just a little girl who's missing her mother. It's a little girl who's been through something no child should have to go through.
Before he left Guatemala, Jason wanted to meet the little girl he'd been sending gifts, pictures, and letters to for months.
Jason: We knew that she wasn't going to be ours. So it was very, very difficult to meet her.
Victoria Corderi: Why did you still want to meet her?
Jason: Because I loved her. She was my daughter.
Jason found Candida clinging to this doll -- a Christmas gift he and Jennell had sent. She and her sister had not yet been reunited with their parents, who live in a rural town several hours away. And, Jason says, after being told for months that her name was Angie, and that she was getting a new American daddy, she was very confused.
Jason: I walked through the door. And within two seconds, this girl is coming, running at me and hugging me, calling me "Papa" -- that was really, really difficult.
Victoria Corderi: What did you say?
Jason: I just hugged her and kissed her and told her that I loved her.
Victoria Corderi: She still wanted you as her father.
Jason: She didn't know any better.
We were with Candida when finally -- after four and a half torturous months -- she ran into her mother's arms.
Back in a familiar embrace, the little girl breaks down. Her mother tries to comfort her, but she can barely contain her own tears. Her daughters almost had been lost to her forever, adopted by unsuspecting families in the United States.
At home, the sisters celebrate, seamlessly slipping back into the innocence of childhood games.
It isn't as easy for their parents. Their hearts ache for their third kidnapped daughter. The private investigator says when he tracked down the woman suspected of holding her captive, she was uncooperative.
"Miguel" (in Spanish): She told us outright we would not get that girl back because she was already being processed for adoption.
Jason and Jennell say they are still chilled at the thought of how close they came to bringing home a stolen child unknowingly. Jennell even posted a warning to other parents on the internet.
Jennell: Any adoptive parents out there who have a picture of her maybe and are dreaming of her, need to know that she has a family who wants her
Before the U.S. embassy will approve a Guatemalan adoption, both the biological mother and child must undergo DNA testing. The tests are supposed to help circumvent kidnappings and baby swapping, but the private investigator says there are ways to get around DNA tests.
"Miguel" (in Spanish): They can say this little girl has no paperwork - she was found in the streets after about a year, the court declares her abandoned, and then she can be adopted.
Police say no one involved in the kidnapping of the three sisters is talking --silenced by death threats from the alleged ringleader, Mayra. They say it's a common problem in Guatemala, where people fear the criminals more than the authorities.
Dateline wanted to talk to Mayra. Wearing hidden cameras, we went to the run-down boarding house she owns -- the place where the sisters say they were held hostage and beaten.
Victoria Corderi: I'd like to talk to Mayra-
Victoria Corderi: I was told she was at her house in Jalapa, the same town where the kidnapped girls' live, 110 miles from Guatemala City. So we went there too.
Corderi: Mayra? Mayra?
Police say Mayra’s home is what's known as a "crib house," where pregnant women stay until they give birth to babies that are sold for adoption. We saw a pregnant woman, and some children there, but I was told Mayra was out.
Meanwhile Candida's parents say people associated with the kidnapping ring have threatened to chop their missing child into pieces if they don't tell police to drop the investigation.
Clara (in Spanish): He told me that our missing girl will never come home and that we would hear the sounds of her body parts hitting our aluminum walls.
So why aren't the kidnappers behind bars? Police call the case a low priority. One woman, who they describe as a small-time player, was arrested, but as for Mayra, they say they can't find her. And almost a year after the warrant was issued for her arrest, she remains free.
We went to Josefina Arellano, who was then the director of the child and adolescent division of PGN, the Guatemalan Agency that approves adoptions.
Victoria Corderi: The girl is still missing and the woman who runs the ring, allegedly, is still out there. What does that say about the system?
Josefina Arellano: We have a lack of people-- to investigate all these cases.
She says there are only three prosecutors to investigate violent crime for the entire country. She promised to meet with them to try to speed up the investigation, but since this interview, nothing has happened. Candida's sister, who has been missing more than a year now, has not been found. And, Arellano has left her job at PGN.
Jason: It's insane. There really needs to be some sort of crack down on the people who abuse the children and who profit from this.
Abusers come in many forms -- kidnappers who terrorize children, and then there are the slick profiteers who put parents through a different kind of hell.
Jill: I've experienced betrayal. I've experienced pain like none other.
This woman and many others say they've been emotionally and financially devastated by their experience trying to adopt children from Guatemala targeted by the very people who were supposed to help them.
Stacy (crying): It was the worst experience.
This is baby central. It’s the nickname for a cluster of luxury hotels in downtown Guatemala City teeming with Americans cooing over children they hope to adopt -- and meeting with adoption facilitators who are handling their cases.
Facilitators here are hired by adoption agencies in the U.S. to handle everything from finding eligible children to overseeing paperwork. When Dateline began to investigate Guatemalan adoptions more than a year ago, the names of certain facilitators came up over and over again, accused by former clients of making promises and taking checks but often not delivering children.
Victoria Corderi: It was the opposite of your expectations?
Jill: My expectations were absolutely crushed. We felt like people didn't care. It was just all about the money.
We met and spoke with dozens of people with heartbreaking tales. And at the center of many of their stories was this man. His name is Athanasios Kollias, a Greek man who ran restaurants in Los Angeles before moving to Guatemala eight years ago. Most people know him simply as Thanassis.
Victoria Corderi: How would you describe Thanassis?
Stacy: Baby stealer.
Sean: He's ruthless.
They come from different states across the country and used different adoption agencies .. But what they have in common, they say, is being victimized by Thanassis.
Rick: I think grifter is the right word. Someone just trying to make money, doesn't care who he takes advantage of, no conscience about it.
Jill Casassa says she and her husband were in the process of adopting these twins, when they learned that even though Thanassis had taken their $18,000 down payment, he'd already given the twins to another family.
Victoria Corderi: These children were clearly taken?
Jill: Clearly taken.
Victoria Corderi: Another couple had a referral, had paid money. It was in process.
Jill: Yes. It was devastating
The Casassas already have two biological children, but because they never got back any of their money, or paperwork Jill blames Thanassis for permanently crushing their dream of adopting.
Jill: Our heart's desire to adopt has been stripped from us and the end result is loss. We've lost everything.
Sean Walsh says his adoption of this brother and sister was almost finished when it fell apart because the paperwork Thanassis submitted was falsified.
Sean: We actually put the Christmas card together and everything. Um, and then, when it fell apart, it was like we're in this state of emotional suspended animation.
Sean and his wife had to begin the adoption of the children from scratch - a process that took years, and cost them tens of thousands of dollars more than they'd already paid.
Sean: You start looking in their eyes. And they're looking at you. And they're identifying with you. And you-- you can't-- it's hard to give that up. I mean, they're real.
Rick and Michelle Wageman were adopting these two children. Rick says Evan, the little boy, suffered needlessly because Thanassis neglected to get him basic medical care. These photos show him covered in scabies sores.
Rick: In his sleep, he would thrash. And he would scratch himself. And he would rub his legs together like a cricket and it was horrible for me to watch.
In Guatemala, prospective parents are allowed to visit children while the adoption is being completed, and even take temporary custody of them.
When Rick and his wife visited Evan, he says the boy's health was alarming. In addition to all the scabs and scars, he was malnourished, feverish and lethargic ... Yet the doctor's report sent by Thanassis, dated just three days before they arrived, calls Evan a "healthy child."
Rick: There's no mention of this scabies, this skin rash, whatever you want to call it. There's no mention in this report.
Victoria Corderi: The pictures show it clearly, all over his legs, and scars.
Rick: Yeah. Seeping scars that he scratches and they end up bleeding all over
And he says, despite repeated promises from Thanassis that it would be taken care of, every time they returned to visit, Evan's sores were worse.
Rick: We were told to our face that our children would be seeing a doctor every month. And that never happened.
Stacy Bernstein found out the little girl she was adopting was never really eligible. She says Thanassis tricked the girl's birth mother into giving her up.
Stacy: I don't think her birth mother decided that she couldn't raise her. I think he said 'you need to do this' and kind of conned her into it.
Stacy's adoption fell apart when the Guatemalan agency that approves adoptions became suspicious and launched an investigation.
Stacy: The government suspected that the birth mother's signature was fraudulent.
In March of 2005, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala banned Thanassis from being involved in U.S. Adoptions. The State Department would not give details but said it was because of quote "shady dealings."
Even so, Thanassis appears to be still very much in business -- and ready to do business. And we were ready, too, as we took our hidden cameras and set up shop as a new agency in town -- Network Adoptions.
Victoria Corderi: If things work out, we can do business, all right?
Thanassis: Why not.
There's a new U.S. adoption agency in Guatemala City looking to make contacts and there seems to be plenty of interest.
Dateline set up the agency, called "Network Adoptions," by creating an official-looking Web site and printing up business cards. I posed as "Vicky Keane" the agency's president while two Dateline producers acted as my employees.
To let people know about us, we visited private orphanages and adoption facilitators wearing hidden cameras, acting as if we were anxious to do business.
Dateline: Can families get regular photos and medical updates?
Facilitator: We usually send reports every Friday.
We also met with some jaladoras - or baby finders. They work for facilitators and agencies, searching for babies who can be adopted. This woman tells us she's paid $5,000 for each baby she refers – and $600 goes to the birth mother.
Paying Guatemalan mothers for their babies is illegal. There are suspicions that some poor women -- even teenagers -- produce babies just to make the cash. But this jaladora says the payments are common.
One of the facilitators she works with is Thanassis, the very same facilitator who caused these four people so much grief. Remember, he's banned by the U.S. embassy, a critical fact most of them say their agencies failed to reveal.
Stacy: My agency wasn't upfront about that.
Sean: The good agencies won't work with the scum bags down in Guatemala.
Victoria Corderi: Is Thanassis one of those scum bags?
Sean: Absolutely. I mean, he is a liar.
Sean Walsh’s adoption was already in process when Thanassis was banned, but the others say their agencies knowingly worked with a shady facilitator.
Jill: Lie after lie after lie after lie.
Dateline wanted to find out how easy it is to do business with the man who is forbidden from handling American adoptions. It turns out, he's hardly incognito. It took us no time to spot him in Guatemala City, mingling with clients and going over paperwork.
Posing as our make believe adoption agency, we arranged to meet him. We asked him to come to a suite at the Radisson hotel, which we'd rigged with hidden cameras. Getting him there was easy - when he heard Network Adoptions was a new agency with lots of wealthy clients, he was all too eager to talk.
We offer Thanassis a glass of wine, and he quickly settles in comfortably on the couch, turning on the charm.
Thanassis: Well, cheers, and welcome to Guatemala!
Vicky Corderi: Cheers!
Jane: Yes, welcome.
Victoria Corderi: Let's talk, and if things work out, we can do business, all right?
Thanassis: Why not.
Within minutes, the man who is banned by the U.S. Embassy is bragging about how busy he is --with babies who are all headed to the United States.
Thanassis: You know, last year I sent 167 babies home.
Victoria Corderi: 167 babies?
Thanassis: Yeah, and this year you know, it's going to be even more, you know.
Victoria Corderi: Are you telling me the truth?
Thanassis: (raises hand in swearing motion) I swear on God, you know.
Throughout our time with him, his phone rings frequently. The conversations deal with babies.
Thanassis on phone in Spanish: Boys? Yes. Yes. And girls.
In between interruptions, we get to business. Thanassis breaks down his costs, which are about the same as what other Guatemalan facilitators charge.
Thanassis: My price is 20 for a girl.
Victoria Corderi: Twenty thousand?
Thanassis: For girl.
Victoria Corderi: For a girl.
Thanassis: Yes, and 19 for a boy.
Victoria Corderi: Nineteen for a boy.
And I read from an imaginary list of clients.
Thanassis: What are you looking for? Like, what kind of the babies you looking for?
Victoria Corderi: Infant or toddler girl -- boy or girl or older child. Oh, and there's one who wants twins--
Thanassis: Ah, and I can have tomorrow twin girls.
Victoria Corderi: You can?
Thanassis: Twin boys and twin girls. The girls I haven't -- I haven't offered yet.
Victoria Corderi: The boys are definitely gone?
Thanassis: I don't give babies until I’m 100 percent sure they are adoptable.
But remember Jill Casassa? She says Thanassis is lying. She was in the process of adopting twins through him that she says he knew were not adoptable - because they were already being adopted by someone else.
We also ask Thanassis about rumors we've heard about sick children being passed off as healthy.
Victoria Corderi: Kids who are sick but they cover up the paper-- the medical paperwork-- as far as how sick they are.
Thanassis: (shakes hand here in dismissive motion) Look --
Victoria Corderi: Is that true?
Thanassis: Can be true...
But he assures us his babies are healthy, treated regularly by embassy-approved doctors.
Thanassis: Guatemalan babies is beautiful babies, and the most healthy of babies – healthy.
He's right about one thing -- because they get more attention in foster homes, or private orphanages, most Guatemalan children up for adoption are very healthy. But apparently not in every case -- remember Rick Wageman? He says one of the children he was adopting had health problems Thanassis ignored.
We also tell Thanassis we're worried about dealing with facilitators who forge documents or place kidnapped children up for adoption. He assures us his operation is on the up and up.
Victoria Corderi: They say there's a lot of corruption but -you know
Thanassis: There is, you know, but on the top.
Victoria Corderi: People selling babies--
Thanassis: (shaking his finger ) No, no, no, no, no/
Victoria Corderi: No? Kidnapping?
Thanassis: No, no, no … We send people investigate-- to the municipalities -- to make sure they're not fake papers.
But both stacy Bernstein and sean Walsh say their adoptions through Thanassis fell apart because of fake papers.
Still, in our meeting, Thanassis hints at none of that. The only thing this banned facilitator really seems interested in is getting us to trust him.
Thanassis: You don't have to worry about that, we worry about this, you see. That's what I mean, you have to trust the people … Here, here. The documents for this boy because you asked me for it.
Thanassis is so eager to do business with network adoptions, he wastes no time bringing us prospects. We have no intention of going any further in the process, but as long as he believes our agency is ready and willing, we can push to see how willing he is to cut corners. What he suggests is both troubling - and illegal.
You want a baby? No problem, says this man, he has plenty of them.
And to prove it, Thanassis --the adoption facilitator who thinks he is doing business with a new agency-- sends two prospects to the hotel room serving as the temporary headquarters of 'Network Adoptions,’ the make-believe agency Dateline has set up.
The boys. an infant just days old, and a two-year-old. arrive with their foster mothers so we can photograph them for our clients in the United States.
As two-year-old Dionisio digs into Play-Dough and this plate of cake, his foster mom tells me this isn't the first child his mother has given for adoption.
Vilma (in Spanish): Just a few months ago she decided to give up all four of her kids because she couldn't afford them anymore.
To hear Thanassis tell it, helping the needy children of Guatemala is what the adoption business is all about.
Thanassis: I like my job, you know, it is really kids that keep me here.
But these people, who say they had nightmarish experiences with Thanassis, don't buy it .... They say what keeps him in Guatemala is money.
Rick: I mean what else is there? He certainly doesn't have the children in mind when he's making these choices and lying to us.
We heard plenty of complaints about Thanassis, but we wanted to see for ourselves just how far he would go to see an adoption through.
Victoria Corderi: And you don't have any like - any kind of - no pull?
Thanassis: (dismissing motion with hand) No.
I tell Thanassis we've heard you can bribe the Guatemalan agency that approves adoptions, the PGN, to speed up a case but he says not anymore.
Thanassis: Before, yes, before we did. You give him a $1,500, and they give it to you in a week. Now, not this guy.
So, no bribes, but what about a prospective parent with a questionable past? I tell him that the social worker's home study for one of my clients - a critical part of the adoption paperwork -- revealed sexual abuse accusations.
Victoria Corderi: A long time ago the guy's ex-wife, OK, accused him of child sex abuse. It had to be noted in the home study. It had to be noted
Thanassis: You're never going to get a baby.
Victoria Corderi: I don't think this guy is really a molester.
Thanassis: I’m not going to accept this. If I know that the guy is a wife abuser, drug pusher, or a sexual-
For a moment, it sounds as if Thanassis is doing the right thing -- until he reveals the reason he won't accept my imaginary client. It's only because he says the case will never get approved by the government, the PGN.
Thanassis: I know the case is going to be rejected in PGN. Child molestation. Ah, forget it.
Later, he reconsiders. The next day, after I meet the little boy Dionisio, I tell Thanassis that I think the accused sexual abuser will be interested in adopting the boy. And this time, he has some suggestions.
Thanassis: Before you even do anything, check the police records. If you can get a clear police, you know, police record but can you buy the - you can buy them here in Guatemala or in Cuba or in Greece, the police. Can you buy them, can you buy them in the United States?
Yes, he's asking if we can bribe the police into removing a charge of child molestation from a prospective adoptive parent's record. And, he has another suggestion: if the abuse accusation is only in the social worker's home study, I should doctor the paperwork.
Thanassis: So, if there is not, in the police record-- redo the home study, take him off the home study.
Victoria Corderi: Take the child molestation off?
Thanassis: Yes, yes, definitely. Definitely.
Remember, Thanassis still has no idea that Network Adoptions is really Dateline.
When our meeting is over, he shakes my hand cheerfully .
Sean: He's very charming. So if you have no sense that you're dealing with someone who's, you know, duplicitous, then you're going to like the guy.
These former clients say it's infuriating that Thanassis so brazenly defies the U.S. embassy ban.
Stacy: He has no business working.
Rick: Stop doing this. Stop facilitating adoptions like the U.S. embassy has already asked him to stop
But that doesn't seem likely. Within days of our return to the states, Thanassis leaves messages on the Network Adoptions answering machine.
And he sends us faxes with photos and documents of more children for our clients.
We tell Thanassis we won't be able to work with him because we've hit an unexpected snag.
But four months later, we call to say we're back in Guatemala, and would like to talk.
This time, we're looking for answers. We meet him for coffee, wearing hidden cameras. He still thinks we are an adoption agency.
Victoria Corderi: Let's be serious right away. But this is no cozy chat … I found out that you were banned by the embassy in March of 2005.
Victoria Corderi: Yet you said did 167 cases last year. How is that possible?
Thanassis: Why not? Because I am not banned anymore.
Victoria Corderi: They said you are presently banned
Thanassis: They tell you the reason?
Victoria Corderi: You're under investigation, there have been a lot of complaints about you, with paperwork, and other things.
Thanassis: No, that's wrong. They lied to you.
Thanassis insists he was only banned because he got into an argument with someone at the U.S. embassy and that it had nothing to do with the adoption business.
He has an answer ready for every question.
I remind him that he suggested I falsify a client's home study to erase allegations of child sexual abuse.
Thanassis: No, I didn't suggest that, you know.
Victoria Corderi: You did, I heard it. You don't think there's something wrong with that?
Thanassis: Well if you think the family is - if the family is capable of you know, taking care of the kids.
Thanassis is visibly agitated, and it may only get worse -- because he's about to find out who we really are.
When Rick Wageman and his wife found out their adoption facilitator in Guatemala had been banned by the U.S. embassy since 2005, they tried to meet with him to get some answers.
Rick: He never showed up cause he knew we wanted to corner him and ask him specific, hard questions that he didn't have answers to.
But we weren't going to let Thanassis Kollias off the hook so easily. He met us for coffee, still believing we were a new agency looking to do business with him -- until we revealed the truth.
Victoria Corderi: My name is Victoria Corderi and I work for Dateline NBC and I am a reporter in the United States.
Thanassis: I knew it. I knew it.
Victoria Corderi: So what I wanted to do was interview you about all of these things on camera, is that OK?
Victoria Corderi: Are you ok? You seem a little nervous? Are you OK?
Thanassis: I am fine, look, you know, I am not scared.
Victoria Corderi: You're not scared. Good, then let's talk about it.
Thanassis: I’m not scared.
Maybe he's not scared, but after first agreeing to talk, he walks off in a huff, saying he'll be in touch. A few hours later, he calls, demanding an interview on his terms. And we were ready.
We wanted to ask him about allegations that he forged paperwork, lied about health care, and took money for children he knew he couldn't deliver. And why is he still doing business with Americans when he is banned by the U.S. embassy?
Thanassis arrived with half a dozen confused-looking women toting babies. But instead of an interview, what took place was a bizarre spectacle.
Thanassis: I hate talking to liars.
Victoria Corderi: After all this, you bring a wave of people to tell me that you're not going to do the interview because I’m a liar?
Victoria Corderi: I would love for you to explain that to me. I would love for you to explain about the complaints that we've got. We have documentation from complaints. We have doctor's records. We have canceled checks. So I have all these things.
Thanassis: Absolutely not.
Victoria Corderi: Don't touch the camera. Don't touch the camera, sir.
Thanassis: OK, vamonos!
Victoria Corderi: Sir, I am giving you the opportunity to talk to us.
Thanassis: You a liar! You lied to us.
Victoria Corderi: Excuse me.
Thanassis: And I can prove it.
Victoria Corderi: OK, can we talk about it? You want to come and talk about it?
In the hallway, things became even more heated.
Thanassis: You should be honest and don't lie to people.
Victoria Corderi: Well you know what, a lot of families would say that you should be honest and not lie as well.
Thanassis: I’m very honest and I -
Victoria Corderi: Well you know what, I have evidence that you're not, so if you want to come here and see the evidence, and talk about it, I’d be happy to do so.
Thanassis stalked off, continuing to rant directly to the cameras following him.
Thanassis (into camera): This lady, she's a tramp, she's a liar, liar, and I can prove it. Take it in your camera, there. I like to know to whom I’m talking? To whom I’m talking I like to know? I like to know to whom I’m talking? To this person - or to this person?
So these people in the United States, would not hear an explanation from the adoption facilitator they say caused them so much heartache.
Victoria Corderi: What would you like to see happen to Thanassis?
Stacy: The nice place for him is in jail.
Victoria Corderi: The nice place?
Stacy: The nice place. I'd rather not say what I’d like to happen to him.
Both Sean Walsh and Rick Wageman eventually found ways to get their children home, but it cost them each about $50,000 more than they'd already paid and, they say, required extraordinary effort.
Rick: When I held those kids in my arms and changed their diapers, there was no turning back.
Victoria Corderi: No matter what?
Rick (tears in eyes): Nothing. Nothing was going to stop us.
Sean (tears in eyes): It was not an easy decision. You know, it could have been easy to just kind of close that door. And something inside me and my wife said "we just can't do that."
Jill Cassasa and Stacy Bernstein weren't so lucky. All they're left with, they say, are bills and bitter memories.
Jill: They have destroyed our ability to trust people in this adoption world because we have been so abused.
Stacy (crying): I feel like my daughter was taken away from me.
But what about the adoption agencies in the U.S. that keep this banned facilitator in business? Sean applauds his agency - Children of the World in Missouri - for reporting Thanassis to the U.S. embassy.
But the others are angry with theirs. Jill is part of a civil lawsuit against Waiting Angels of Michigan, which also faces criminal charges. Its directors deny any wrongdoing and never responded when Dateline asked why they continued to work with Thanassis. Neither did Rick’s agency, Adoption Covenant of Texas, nor Stacy’s, Adoption Partners of South Carolina.
So we contacted Thanassis again, and this time he responded with a letter blaming the agencies for any problems. He claims he returned Jill’s $18,000 check to her and was upfront with Stacy’s about issues with the birth mother's ID.
In Sean Walsh’s case, he says "knew nothing of fixed papers." And as for the boy Rick Wageman adopted, Thanassis denies ignoring his health problems, claiming "he was not very ill."
Troy: There's a few people who are ruining the system. And they're doing it for greed.
Troy Webb is an adoptive dad who writes for GuatAdopt, a popular website about Guatemalan adoption. He says not enough is being done to crack down on unscrupulous agencies or facilitators.
Troy Webb: People need to be put in jail. Whether it's on the Guatemalan side or the American side, they need to be put in jail.
Webb and his wife have adopted three little girls from Guatemala.
He says the negative publicity about a few corrupt operators makes people assume - wrongly - that all Guatemalan adoptions are tainted.
Troy: For me as an adoptive dad, to see all the negative press, and people really blowing things out of proportion, it's an attack on my family. We don't want to be stigmatized. The majority of adoptions in Guatemala are perfectly legal and legitimate.
Still, adoption in Guatemala is now in the middle of a major upheaval. Under a law that just went into effect, the government is taking over, eliminating private operators in an effort to clean up corruption. Webb says many adoptive parents fear this new plan will be disastrous, grinding adoptions to a halt. As it is, 80 percent of the children here live in poverty and there is almost no social welfare.
Troy Webb: It's a death sentence. Thirty thousand kids die a year in Guatemala. And only four to 5,000 are adopted. We should be adopting more children.
The new law is especially unnerving for the 3,000 plus American families who had already started adoptions -- people like Jason and Jennell, who are adopting another little girl from Guatemala. Surprisingly, they are still using the same agency that handled their failed adoption of the kidnapped child. They say they can't walk away - because the agency has all of their paperwork and money.
Jennell: These people also have your lives in their hands too, because things can go smoothly or they cannot go smoothly.
Victoria Corderi: In other words if you were to say "Why did you lie to me?" yu would lose this little girl?
Jennell: It is a fear.
The agency, Adoption Blessings of Macon, Georgia, told Dateline it didn't lie intentionally -- it just passed on bad information that came from Guatemala.
Jason and Jennell say they're hopeful, but the loss of the girl whose photos had already been put in their family album, the girl they once called their daughter, still haunts them.
Jason: I still have a very large portion of my heart devoted to that girl.
Victoria Corderi: Did you take the pictures out of the album?
Jennell: No, actually, I still have one in my backpack. I carry it back and forth to work with me.
Victoria: She's still very much with you?